Twenty years after the release of Shunji Iwai’s film about early adolescence, the movie’s insights and prescience about the effects of the internet are still remarkably fresh.
Twenty years ago, in 2001, the internet was really taking off—the steady increase in internet use was accelerating, especially among young people. That year, a film by Japanese writer-director Shunji Iwai was released called All About Lily Chou-Chou. It’s a film about a time in a person’s life that is uniquely intense: early adolescence. The way it portrays kids in that age group—basically ages 13 through 15—is still innovative twenty years later. The internet is a new element in that drama, in the form of a chat room devoted to a pop star—relevant today, even though you might think the medium would seem outdated now. But Iwai captured something that hasn’t changed—the young minds compartmentalizing their real life from a separate place of imagination and escape, as if this special place was floating above them in the ether, as it were. As it turns out, the word “ether” is employed as a weird thematic element here.
Lily Chou-Chou is a fictional pop star, a singer of moody avant-garde compositions that provide meaning and escape for fans in their early teens trying to get through their confusing alienated lives. (The closest match I can come up with is the Icelandic recording artist Björk.) Anyway, although the film is ironically titled All About Lily Chou-Chou, it’s not all about her at all, but about a group of young people, including one devoted fan named Yūichi who runs a chat room where kids talk about Lily and her music. Throughout the film, we’re shown chat room texts and conversations. Yūichi himself, whose screen name is Philia, says that Lili’s message is conveyed through the “ether,” a concept that seems to stand in for a sense of spiritual elevation, a way of floating above or behind the painful situations of ordinary life. It eventually appears that at least some of the people posting to the chat room are characters in the film we’re watching, disguised by screen names but revealing personal clues. The cutting back and forth between the textual chat and the events in the film creates a strange feeling.
We know right away from the style that this is no ordinary movie. The digital photography has a subtle glow or ambience creating a dreamlike effect. Long and medium shots predominate, with oblique angles of vision, and the time structure bends forward and back—we learn in fragments, as the characters do, an experience within the mind. Iwai is furiously unsentimental about this time of life. Movies usually try to look back at the teen years with nostalgia or sad wistfulness, or some other implied commentary. But this movie takes its characters on their own terms, and that turns out to mean intense cruelty, bullying, and desperation. Yūichi is tormented and beaten by older kids, and that’s presented as just the way things are. He meets a tall kid named Shusuke who also gets bullied. They become friends, and at one point they and a couple of other boys take a trip to Okinawa during summer vacation. The style shifts here, as this part is told through the kids’ own camcorder videos, where they meet some girls and have adventures typical of the summer, culminating in Shusuke surviving a dangerous event that changes him, and not for the better. Films usually try to provide a general idea of a character’s motivations, so that we understand why he or she acts a certain way. But in real life we often can’t grasp people’s motivations, and their behavior is unpredictable. All About Lily Chou-Chou has that sense of mystery. Why are people acting this way, or doing these things? To the characters in the midst of their dramas, the reasons seem impenetrable.
The truth is stark; the intensity of feeling is tremendously moving. Ultimately tragedies are played out through the fates of two girls that Yūichi is interested in, girls who find themselves betrayed by the expectations and the power of boys. All this in contrast to a soundtrack of ineffable piano music by Debussy, surprising yet somehow perfectly apt.
All About Lily Chou-Chou tells of secret guilty places inside us when we were growing up, places we were not ready to see or admit. One thing I’m sure of: the person who created this film is a cinematic visionary.